Monday, February 8, 2010

Review of The Book of Jhereg

The Book of Jhereg
by Steven Brust
480pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.12/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.17/5

The Book of Jhereg by Steven Brust is an omnibus containing three books from his Vlad Taltos series - Jhereg, Yendi and Teckla. There are currently twelve books in this fantasy series (out of a planned 19) about the assassin Vlad Taltos, and the newest book Iorich was just released last month. The books are not published in chronological order, and this collection has the first three books in publication order. This means that the book in the middle of this edition (Yendi) actually takes place before the first book (Jhereg), and The Book of Jhereg does not even contain the first book if going in order of timeline. It was a little disconcerting at first to go backwards in time and then forward again, especially since I'm one of those people who likes to read in strict chronological order, but I did end up deciding it worked just fine for these adventures since each book did have its own main storyline and an ending.

In Jhereg, assassin/mob boss Vlad Taltos is asked to meet with an elite member of the Jhereg council known as the Demon. After much thought about what he could want and how many bodyguards to have nearby, Vlad accepts and goes to lunch with the Demon. The Demon has heard that Vlad does "work" (assassination, of course) and would like him to eliminate a member of the council who ran off with nine million gold belonging to the Jhereg council. Considering the amount of compensation Vlad is offered, it's hard to refuse, but he finds he really has his work cut out for him when his spy network discovers exactly where his target is hiding. Assassinating the man would not only have severe political ramifications but would also end a friendship so Vlad needs to figure out how to get him out of hiding and into a place where he can finish the job.

Yendi takes place before Jhereg and tells the story of an event mentioned toward the beginning of it - how Vlad met his wife, Cawti, when she assassinated him during a Jhereg war between Vlad and another man. Fortunately, Vlad was not permanently killed and was able to be revivified.

In Teckla, which takes place after Jhereg, Vlad and Cawti are at odds with one another. One night a man knocks on their door to tell Cawti about a death, revealing her involvement with a band of revolutionaries to Vlad. While trying to figure out who killed the man, Vlad must contend with his strained relationship with his wife as well as how he feels about himself and his role in the world.

The Book of Jhereg is just plain fun. It's very readable, not at all dense with more dialogue and internal thoughts than description and moves at a pretty good clip, making each book in it a fairly quick read (especially since the individual books are not all that long anyway).

Each book is told from the first person perspective of Vlad, who is a very entertaining narrator. He's smart and fast-thinking and his thoughts are often very humorous. The narrative has a very chatty and modern style - Vlad sounds as if he is telling the story to a friend. Some who enjoy their fantasy to feel old-fashioned may be bothered by just how modern some of the expressions are; for instance, it did jar me out of the story a bit when Vlad said he had some cash since their money is always referred to as gold other than that. It's not a book that takes itself too seriously, though, so if you can read it with that mindset and just look to have some fun, it will work much better.

The setting is somewhat reminiscent of role-playing games such as D&D. There are two main races, what we would call humans (Easterners like Vlad) and the Dragaerans, a tall, very long-lived people who consider themselves to be the humans. The Dragaerans have several different clans, including the Jhereg. Technically, Vlad is a Jhereg since it is possible to purchase membership and his father did so when he was young. Resurrection and teleportation are both possible and there are assassins, thieves, magic users and enchanted weapons galore. In addition, everyone is badass. Vlad is both an assassin and a witch with a jhereg familiar (a dragon small enough to sit on his shoulder that can poison). His wife is also an excellent assassin and has some abilities with witchcraft, although not as much as Vlad. His Dragaeran friends are all both talented mages and warriors and in general very powerful and useful to have around.

Since this book was about an assassin, I expected to find Vlad interesting to read about but difficult to sympathize with. I was pleasantly surprised to find this was not the case, particularly in the third book where Vlad is more analytical about what he does and why. In the first two books, Vlad doesn't seem particularly worried about his chosen profession but he also never strikes me as a bad guy. He treats his employees well and he cares about his wife and his friends. It also helps that he just seems to be playing the same game as the rest of the Jhereg so he doesn't really seem that different from most people morally - at least until the third book, which gives more a glimpse into the human part of the world. And even then, I couldn't see him as anything other than a decent guy who killed people for a living. It probably also helps somewhat that death is not always permanent and can serve as a warning, although there are times when Vlad does cause permanent death (to a man who committed a serious crime - I don't think I'd say his crime deserved such a harsh punishment, though). Vlad is just so funny and in some ways very relatable that I just couldn't help but really like him.

Duels and assassinations can be quite casual under certain socially acceptable circumstances, though, as shown on the second page of Yendi:
"Good evening, Vlad; Morrolan."

I turned and bowed low to Aliera e'Kieron, Morrolan's cousin and Dragon Heir to the Throne. Morrolan bowed and squeezed her hand. I smiled. "Good evening, Aliera. Any duels yet?"

"Why, yes," she said. "Did you hear?"

"As a matter of fact, no, I was being facetious. You really do have a duel lined up?"

"Yes, for tomorrow. Some teckla of a Dzurlord noticed how I walk and made remarks."

I shook my head and tsked. "What's his name?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. I'll find out tomorrow. Morrolan, have you seen Sethra?"
I really enjoyed all three books. My favorite was Jhereg, which I thought was the most fun, but I also thought Yendi was nearly as entertaining. Most people do not seem to enjoy Teckla as much since it is more political and more about the characters, but I enjoyed that one as well and thought it gave Vlad and Cawti more depth as well as showing more about how most humans related to the Dragaerans.

My only complaint about this one is that Vlad's familiar Loiosh sometimes reminded me of that annoying talking sword from Baldur's Gate II, even if he didn't technically talk but just communicated psionically with Vlad. (Lilarcor is its name - and yes, I couldn't remember its name and found it by googling "annoying talking sword from Baldur's Gate II.") He'd often insert comments like "Can I eat him, boss? Can I? Huh? Huh?" and the way it was worded along with the D&D feel of the book just made me think he must have sounded exactly like that sword. Sometimes Loiosh's interjections also seemed repetitive and overdone with the intent of being humorous just like Lilarcor, but I did really like the idea of a little dragon familiar that sat on your shoulder like a parrot so I didn't mind too much.

The Book of Jhereg contains three very entertaining books about the adventures of the assassin Vlad Taltos. They're easy to read, humorous and just plain fun. I'd definitely like to read more in this series.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was a Christmas gift from my wish list (where it has been for quite a while).


orannia said...

Thank you Kristen. They do sound like a fun read but the thought of 12 books already in the series with another seven to come kind of has me not to keen. Personally, I find it hard to start such big series...they never seem to end :)

Kristen said...

Orannia - I can understand how a series of 12 books with more to come makes you hesitate. They are at least pretty short and quick to read - I read about one of these a day during holiday vacation. The endings were all satisfying enough that it didn't really feel incomplete to me. I'll read the rest, but I also feel like reading them gradually will be fine since there aren't a lot of details I think I'll need to remember.

Benjamin said...

Good review, Kristen. I liked the first two books well enough, but like many, I didn't care for Teckla, though not for the reasons you mentioned.


My beef was in how Vlad's marriage ended. Vlad and Cawti pretty much went their separate ways because they didn't talk to each other. What the hell? This is his wife, doesn't he think they should talk about this? I've never been a fan of writing where authors handle relationships this way. It's just lazy.

Kristen said...

Benjamin - Thank you!


That actually didn't bother me; I thought it seemed like something that could have happened. While I agree it seems like one should talk about something as important as that, I also think there are times where people don't know how to or just can't without feeling as though they are going to make it worse. I thought I read somewhere that Brust actually based that on his own divorce (found it - someone said that in their Goodreads review, don't know if it's true or not).

Benjamin said...

Really? That's interesting if it's true, though I'd feel bad for the author. While I certainly agree that it could happen that way, I just don't like it when it does. Just a personal pet peeve of mine.

From what I hear, I'm in the minority on Brust so ignore me. :P I can't possibly love every single book I read can I? ;)

Kristen said...

Benjamin - I don't know that you are in the minority since a lot of people weren't fans of that book and I imagine at least some of them didn't like it for the same reason. While it didn't bother me personally, I can see why it would someone else; we all have our own personal pet peeves (like purely evil villains is for me or shallow teenage characters who only seem to talk about how hot everyone else is or isn't).

Since I didn't see any information about Brust going through a divorce when he wrote it other than that Goodreads review, I'm not sure if it's true or not. The reviewer was complaining about it so maybe they just made the assumption his personal issues with a divorce got in the way, who knows...

And no, you certainly can't love every book you read - none of them would seem special anymore and that would get boring!